PREVIEW: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – For yet another year, the Verizon IndyCar Series comes to Southern California for arguably its marquee road or street race of the season.

The 42nd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra), however, will be a case study in whether qualifying or strategic variety will emerge as the way the winner is determined after 2015 went against the previous three years with the DW12 chassis.

In the three races from 2012 to 2014, there were three or more cautions in each event, and only a total of eight drivers who started in the top 10 (three in 2012, three in 2013, two in 2014) who also finished in the top 10.

Last year, in the first year of aero kits, passing was harder and eight of the 10 drivers who started in the top 10 also finished there.

We’ve also had crazy variety in the podium finishers: here’s the last four years of podiums at Long Beach:

  • 2015: Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya
  • 2014: Mike Conway, Will Power, Carlos Munoz
  • 2013: Takuma Sato, Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson
  • 2012: Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe

So that makes picking a winner a little difficult… although if Team Penske’s St. Petersburg form carries over to Long Beach, that team might be hard to beat.

Here’s the talking points heading into Long Beach:

2016 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – Talking Points

Passing or no passing? 

Long Beach was never the world’s biggest passing haven to begin with even in the “glory days,” and the jumbled results as mentioned from 2012 through 2014 had a lot more to do with strategy gambles rather than a driver moving outright through the field (Will Power’s memorable 2012 win from 12th, however, was a nice mix of both).

But through two races, it’s become apparent on both one street course and one oval that with the cars closer in appearance, competitive performance and high top downforce with the respective aero kit upgrades, that if you’re stuck behind someone you might not be able to pass, and you’ll be stuck behind.

This will make qualifying and the run to Long Beach’s notorious Turn 1 all the more crucial if the race goes similarly to last year, when there was just one caution for four laps and all 23 starters finished the race.

Is this Pagenaud’s place for his first Penske win?

We asked the same question three years ago when he hadn’t won a race yet in IndyCar, and we asked this same question last year after he’d bagged his first four wins in 2013 and 2014 once with Team Penske.

If there’s a venue where Pagenaud should get that elusive first win with Team Penske in his 19th start with Roger Penske, it’s here.

Pagenaud’s four Long Beach finishes the last four years are second, eighth, fifth and fourth. He’s also a past winner here in the American Le Mans Series.

More importantly, he’s got the best momentum he’s had in gelling with the No. 22 crew compared to last year. This was only his third race with the team last year; now with an added season and two second places already under his belt, the points leader is primed to finally win one.

Hunter-Reay’s double and quest for glory 

Ryan Hunter-Reay will pull off the unusual feat of racing in both IndyCar and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this weekend, and with both manufacturers.

The Floridian will race the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP in IMSA’s Prototype class with Marc Goossens, substituting for Ryan Dalziel who’s on assignment at the FIA World Endurance Championship season opener in Silverstone with Tequila Patron ESM.

That’s in addition to his day job with the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, still his priority for the weekend.

Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal have split the title of Honda’s best driver thus far this year; Hunter-Reay made a dynamic move of Helio Castroneves for third at St. Petersburg and got robbed twice on yellow flag periods when another podium was possible at Phoenix.

“It would have been nice to come away with a result that reflected that, but the racing gods buried us with two yellows,” Hunter-Reay admitted to me post-race at Phoenix, where he was nearly worth the price of admission on his own.

This will be a test of a weekend for RHR, who traditionally qualifies well at Long Beach but hasn’t bagged a huge race result here since his emotional 2010 win not long after losing his mother to cancer.

His starts since joining Andretti at Long Beach: second, second, 13th (qualified third but lost 10 spots per engine change), second, first and fourth. His finishes: first, 23rd (gearbox), sixth (penalized from third for contact), 24th (accident), 20th (accident) and 13th. He tries particularly hard at Long Beach, and has sometimes gone over the edge.

More history beckoning for Dixon?

Most people do not appreciate how good Scott Dixon is. Some do, certainly, but an encore win following his Phoenix win and his 2015 Long Beach triumph would be his 40th of his career – and put him solely fourth on the all-time win list, trailing only A.J. Foyt (67 wins), Mario Andretti (52) and Michael Andretti (42).

I’d meant to write a Dixon legacy piece following his Phoenix win, when he equaled Al Unser for fourth overall on 39. Then I saw this piece from a good friend in Oil Pressure’s George Phillips and thought that did the job quite nicely. I’ll leave you to read it for yourself, and I’ll add my own thoughts following last night’s evening with legends at the Petersen Museum.

Win droughts that could end? 

Helio Castroneves hasn’t won since Detroit race two in 2014. His countryman Tony Kanaan hasn’t won since Fontana 2014.

Will Power, a two-time Long Beach winner, is nearing one year since his last win at the Indianapolis Grand Prix in 2015. He had a nightmare Long Beach last year when he qualified 18th and finished 20th.

Pagenaud, as mentioned earlier, is in search of his first Penske win overall and first since Houston race two in 2014.

These four are good candidates to end their double digit race dry spells and there’s a good chance three if not all four of them will end up in the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday afternoon.

The final word

Why not leave it to the living legend to describe the legend of Long Beach? Here’s the defending champion, Dixon, on the circuit, race and atmosphere:

“Long Beach has such an amazing history. It’s a truly iconic American event that started gaining a lot of popularity with Formula One back in the day. With the layout of the track it’s truly one of the best street circuits anywhere around, and more importantly you actually get to race there.

“It took me forever to get to victory lane there, but we managed to accomplish that last year and I hope we can return to that form again this year.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

Friday, April 15

10:00-10:45 Practice 1
2:00-2:45   Practice 2

Saturday, April 16

10:00-10:45 Practice 1
2:00-3:15   Qualifying
3:00        Qualifying (SDD on NBCSN)

Sunday, April 17

9:00-9:30   Warm-up
1:00        Pre-Race (LIVE on NBCSN)
1:38/1:45   Drivers Start Your Engine/Est. Green Flag (LIVE on NBCSN)

All times local and PT.

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Helio Castroneves (pole)
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Tony Kanaan
6. Sebastien Bourdais
7. Josef Newgarden
8. Marco Andretti
9. Carlos Munoz
10. Sebastian Saavedra

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Juan Pablo Montoya
3. Scott Dixon
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Simon Pagenaud
6. Josef Newgarden